Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin are attempting a pre-emptive coup against the incoming Democratic administration after the defeat of right-wing darling Scott Walker. This week on Intercepted: Hillary Clinton famously did not set foot in Wisconsin during the 2016 campaign and Donald Trump won the state, but buried within that narrative is a deeper story about how Wisconsin was transformed from a progressive bastion into a right-wing laboratory. Dan Kaufman, author of “The Fall of Wisconsin: Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics,” digs into the history, analyzes the latest Republican conspiracy and lays out why we all should study the Wisconsin model. Longtime criminal justice reporters Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith talk about their gripping new true crime podcast Murderville, which tells the story of a series of grisly killings in a small Georgia town and the man they believe has been wrongly imprisoned. Canadian hip-hop artist and host of Netflix’s “Hip-Hop Evolution” Shad talks about his roots, class warfare, and his imaginative new album, “A Short Story About a War.”
Barry White: I never take anything for granted. Only a fool baby takes things for granted. Just because it’s here today, it can be gone tomorrow. Baby, I love you just the way you are.
Donald Trump: I’m a very stable genius.
My touch, my feel that’s what, that’s what I do.
Did anyone ever hear me do the snake?
Even look at Roseanne. I called her yesterday.
Yes, please. Mr. Kurd. And then we fell in love.
The sentence should have been I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia.
I know all about flipping for 30, 40 years. I’ve been watching flippers.
One of the wettest we’ve ever seen from the standpoint of water.
It’s really an anonymous, gutless coward.
Weeds and they’re raking them. They’re on fire.
Please, don’t be a baby, okay?
A lot of the rich guys like rockets.
People call it Britain. They call it Great Britain. They call it — they used to call it England, different parts.
Just remember what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.
Jeremy Scahill: This is Intercepted. I’m Jeremy Scahill coming to you from the offices of The Intercept in New York City and this is episode 77 of Intercepted.
Protestors: This is what democracy looks like. Show them what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like.
JS: On December 3rd people began to gather at the Wisconsin State Capitol to protest the lame-duck Republican legislature’s late-night conspiracy to strip away the power of newly elected Democratic officials, including the incoming governor who unseated the right-wing darling Scott Walker.
Robin Vos: I do not believe that a single stroke of a pen by a governor of either party should be able to undo the work of the legislature in negotiation with the executive branch. Those are the kinds of things that are in this bill today, making sure that the practices that we have had where both sides sit at the table and neither one is able to unilaterally do something.
Scott Fitzgerald: I’m concerned. I think that Governor-elect Evers is going to bring a liberal agenda to Wisconsin.
JS: That’s Republican Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly Robin Vos and State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald justifying their power grab. The proposal passed by the State Assembly and Senate on December 5th will weaken the governor’s ability to make rules that enact laws and it gives lawmakers the ability to control appointees to the economic development agency. The sweeping changes also aim to prevent the incoming Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul from withdrawing the state from a lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act. Early voting would also be cut down to just two weeks prior to elections. That’s a move clearly intended to suppress black votes in Milwaukee.
On Meet the Press on Sunday, Chuck Todd interviewed Democratic Governor-elect Tony Evers. And Todd offered a less than factual analysis, saying that this Republican preemptive coup was essentially business as usual and that Democrats have engaged in similar campaigns.
Chuck Todd: Now this has happened before in many a legislature. Democrats, in fact, have done this in the past to Republican governors in lame-duck sessions in other states.
JS: Chuck Todd offered no evidence to back up this claim and by all accounts, such actions have been rare, particularly when you consider the scope of these actions in Wisconsin. On that same show, Governor-elect Evers talked about his efforts to convince the outgoing governor Scott Walker to veto the bill:
Tony Evers: Vetoing the legislation was going to be an important thing not only to make sure what happened last November, the vote of the people of Wisconsin is actually upheld and we’re putting people in front of politics. But also, it’s just bad legislation. And I made that pitch and he was non-committal.
JS: As we went to air, Scott Walker had not signed the bill, but he did go on social media on Tuesday to defend the measures, saying “the new governor will still have some of the strongest powers of any governor in the nation if these bills become law.”
Wisconsin emerged as one of the main battlegrounds in the 2016 election and Hillary Clinton famously never set foot in the state during the campaign.
Hillary Clinton: So, I just don’t believe that those were the determining factors about how many visits how many people made. I just don’t buy that.
JS: But there’s a deeper context to why she failed to win Wisconsin and why Trump won. And also, a deeper context to how an extreme right-winger like Scott Walker ever rose to power in a state famous for its progressive politics.
My guest today has been studying Wisconsin for well, his whole life really. He wrote the following:
“Donald Trump’s victory may have shocked the Clinton campaign and media pundits, but the result merely heralded the final stage of Wisconsin’s dramatic transformation from a pioneering beacon of progressive, democratic politics to the embodiment of that legacy’s national unraveling. Powerful conservative donors and organizations across the country had Wisconsin in their sights years before the 2016 presidential election, helping Governor Scott Walker and his allies systematically change the state’s political culture.”
So how did Wisconsin go from a “laboratory of democracy” and progressive politics to become a testing ground for right-wing policies?
Joining me now to break down the latest on what’s happening in Wisconsin and try to tackle that question and how we got here is Dan Kaufman. Like me, he’s from Wisconsin. He grew up in Madison. I grew up in Milwaukee. Kaufman is the author of a deeply reported and fascinating new book. It is called “The Fall of Wisconsin: Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and The Future of American Politics.” The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer praised the book saying, “Through the microcosm of one state, Dan Kaufman does a masterful job explaining what’s happened to America, and why. It’s not a happy tale, but it’s an important one.”
Dan Kaufman joins me now. Dan, welcome to Intercepted.
Dan Kaufman: Thanks so much for having me, Jeremy. It’s great to be here.
JS: So, let’s start just with a 101 overview of what happened in Wisconsin after Tony Evers beat Scott Walker.
DK: Well, within 24 hours, less than 24 hours, the Speaker of the Assembly Robin Vos floated the idea that they were going to make some changes during the lame-duck session basically stripping governor-elect Evers of some of his powers. They were very un-specific about what they were but some of the ideas floated immediately were to limit his control over a very powerful economic development corporation called the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, which was the liaison for the Foxconn deal.
Foxconn, the world’s largest contract electronics manufacturer, and it is being wooed to Wisconsin at the cost to taxpayers now of more than four and a half billion dollars to a place just outside Racine called Mount Pleasant. Walker spearheaded this deal. It was also enabled by President Trump. Foxconn’s first American plant. It was supposed to bring back good-paying manufacturing jobs to Wisconsin, but it’s turned into a boondoggle. That was one thing.
Another thing that they talked about was restricting Governor Evers ability to withdraw Wisconsin from a multi-state lawsuit against the Affordable Care Act. He campaigned on this, Governor Evers did, and he won, as well as, campaigned on criticism of the Foxconn deal.
Tony Evers: To beat Scott Walker we need a stronger vision for our future. Instead of investing a billion dollars on handouts to companies like Foxconn, I’m going to invest in our kids and our workers.
DK: So, they were challenging the things that he had actually campaigned on. To understand how absurd this is, you have to look at how extensively gerrymandered Wisconsin is. The Republicans have a stranglehold on the state legislature in large part, not exclusively, because of gerrymandering. In the November elections, Democrats won all statewide offices and yet, they only gained a single assembly seat and lost a state Senate seat. They now have 36 assembly seats out of 99. It’s never been more than 39 out of 99 in four elections since a very extreme secretive gerrymandering was pushed through in 2011.
JS: Well, and you had Scott Fitzgerald who was the majority leader in the Wisconsin State Senate and he said the following: “If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority. We would have all five constitutional officers and we would probably have many more seats in the legislature.”
DK: Well, Milwaukee, a lot of people read that as a coded language for African-Americans, and Dane County where Madison is is really the economic engine of the entire state. It’s the only place that’s really growing in population. And the university system is the state’s largest employer. It was quite an extraordinary statement as though those votes didn’t matter. And they said also the legislature is the most representative branch of government. Whether or not that’s true in the abstract, it certainly isn’t true in Wisconsin.
In fact, it’s the least representative because of this gerrymandering. They’re basically impervious to elections. They cannot be unseated. Their majority can’t really be unseated. It’s so heavily gerrymandered that a federal court ruled, for the first time in 30 years, that it was denying Democrats their constitutional rights and then it went to the Supreme Court. Supreme Court sent it back saying the plaintiffs don’t have standing. But it was so extreme that that was the result.
JS: And is this happening in other states? Is this an unprecedented kind of pre-emptive coup of sorts against this Democratic incoming governor?
DK: No, it actually happened first in North Carolina, very similarly in 2016, when a Democratic governor one and broke up one-party rule there. They immediately began very aggressive stripping of his powers. In fact, it was so extreme that earlier this year, at the beginning of the legislative session, a reporter asked the leader of the Senate do you plan on stripping anymore of Governor Cooper’s power, that’s the Democratic governor, and the Senate majority leader’s joked and said:
Phil Berger: Does he still have any? [Laughs.]
Tim Moore: If you have any suggestions, let us know.
DK: It’s very extreme there and now they’re talking about doing the same thing in Michigan. And this is telling because Wisconsin has been a kind of laboratory for a lot of this conservative ideology. This is one example where Wisconsin didn’t lead it, but it’s adopted some of the most extreme policies that are generated often by groups not from the state.
Most notoriously, the American Legislative Exchange Council, a secretive group that was founded in the early 70’s largely in a sense by Paul Weyrich, a very important new right activist who built a lot of this national conservative infrastructure. And in the Tea Party wave of 2010, when Governor Walker was elected and the Republicans seized both houses of the state legislature, they began passing these very extreme policies that a lot of them were sort of copycat bills from ALEC. Labor rights were curtailed, voting rights. A lot of things were changed.
JS: Just to remind people that ALEC which you’re talking about — major recipient of funding from the Koch brothers as well.
DK: I actually went to two ALEC meetings, interestingly enough. And it’s very rare that they let a reporter in. And I saw how it works. What it does is it brings together corporate lobbyists, fellows, and analysts from conservative think tanks, and state legislators. There’s a very progressive Democratic assemblywoman named Chris Taylor who has joined ALEC as a kind of out-spy. It’s officially a nonpartisan group. That’s its IRS tax status. So, she goes simply to report back on what is coming next for Wisconsin and she joked with me — In my book, I follow her around to these ALEC meetings.
She says the state legislators are real, It’s like a three-legged stool, is how she describes it. These corporate lobbyists like ExxonMobil, Pharma, the pharmaceutical trade lobbying group, and then you have these right-wing think tanks like the Goldwater Institute and so on, especially in education policy — privatizing education. And then you have state legislators and, in her view, the state legislators are the junior partner and they’re sort of handed the stuff and say go out and do this. And they don’t necessarily even have a great idea of what it is.
There [are] other ways it works too though. For example, the Trayvon Martin Stand Your Ground bill was drafted by an NRA lobbyist in Florida, brought to an ALEC meeting as a model, then was adopted by this task force, and then disseminated. So, sometimes it’s tried out in the state first, brought to them but it acts as a disseminator and propagator to a wider audience. And then 26 states, including Wisconsin, adopted a version of that Stand Your Ground law. Immediately bad policy was being replicated on essentially a national scale, wherever they had control.
JS: What’s the ultimate agenda or what are the priorities of the kind of coup leaders in the Wisconsin legislature now who are preemptively stripping Evers of this power? Like what are their main priorities? Why did they do this? What do they want to achieve?
DK: Well, I think it’s really about holding on to power at all costs. It’s a tragedy for the citizens of the state. In some ways, it’s more of an outrage than even an Act 10 which was the name for the law that stripped most public employees of their collective bargaining rights in 2011.
Amy Goodman: The national media is saying that Wisconsin labor has lost. That the bills have been passed in the House and the Senate and signed off on by Governor Walker that would end collective bargaining rights for most of the public employees in the state. It doesn’t feel like a loss today. Well over a hundred thousand people are here at the Capitol.
DK: But the voters, it’s stripping them of their vote. It’s a rise of minority rule. It is emblematic of our times. The Republican party now is a very relentless and very cohesive machine. Nowhere has that been proven more true than in Wisconsin. They are willing to undo a hundred years of good pragmatic progressive legislation.
A lot of this legislation is about engineering their own dominance. For example, decimating the labor movement bankrupted the labor movement, which was a prime donor to the Democratic party. I mean their founder Paul Weyrich had said outright that it’s not good if everyone votes. Frankly, our leverage goes down. This undemocratic strain, I think is a strain in the libertarian right.
JS: It’s important to point out that in these midterm elections, in 2018, that Democrats won all five —
DK: That’s correct.
JS: — statewide elections and you have Republican leaders in Wisconsin essentially, or in some cases just blatantly, admitting that they passed this plan specifically to undermine the will of the statewide vote.
DK: Right, so concerned about winning power they were going to add a third election in 2020 to make a Supreme Court judicial election not on the same day as the Democratic presidential primary which they expected high turnout. So, that would have made three elections in three consecutive months. It was an extra cost of seven million dollars. You have to remember this is a party that always talks about the taxpayer, but they’re just, you know, they’re adding something for no reason.
And the Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald said, he was very honest, he told reporters it was to give their candidate who was a Walker appointee, who’s going to be running for his first full term a better chance at winning. That was stripped out because it was just too far but it tells you something about what is driving it but it’s not just this issue.
I think this issue is the denouement of 8 years of this, you know, this desire, this quest for power. And when you look at these other policies like the Right to Work law, the so-called Right to Work law, Act 10, the gutting of campaign finance laws — they all ultimately can be read as a way to engineer their political dominance — the gerrymandering. They’re all pieces of it. It doesn’t ensure it absolutely, but when you add it together, cumulatively it makes for a very powerful machine.
JS: You’ve written an incredible book that doesn’t just tell the story of Wisconsin. that contains lessons for other states that are facing, not necessarily the same history as Wisconsin, but right-wing attempts to manipulate or undermine the will of Democratic voters. And it’s not lost on people that Hillary Clinton won that election in terms of votes but lost it because of a sort of equally arcane and vicious process that is the electoral college. But the title of your book is “The Fall of Wisconsin: Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and The Future of American Politics.” Give people a sense or some vignettes of the progressive history of Wisconsin and why it has that historical reputation as being the state of Fighting Bob La Follette and sort of progressivism.
DK: Robert La Follette who was kind of the pivotal figure of Wisconsin progressivism. He was a Governor and Senator but also a failed third-party candidate for president in 1924 on the Progressive Party ticket. And La Follette his two, I think, most important ideas were the need to restrain corporate influence on government, and the other was that democracy is only workable if there’s active citizenship if people are actively engaged. So, he created a lot of reforms as Governor to open up the process — banning corporate donations to candidates but also instituting direct primaries — and he also forged an unusually strong relationship with the state university.
He felt like, he was a graduate of that university and he wanted to draw on the expertise of faculty to create pragmatic progressive legislation that would help the citizens as a whole. So, out of this, you had the first worker’s compensation law. You had child labor laws. You had a lot of progressive reforms. In fact, some people say that the New Deal was basically the Wisconsin idea writ large.
JS: Well, in fact, you tell this story of Franklin Roosevelt being in the White House and then you say that Wisconsinites start to move to Washington and you see the impact of La Follette’s ideas and this experiment that he’s engaged in Wisconsin being adopted at a federal level. It was also, it was almost the moral equivalent of what Tommy Thompson would do many decades later when he was governor of Wisconsin where his crime bill and his welfare “reform” stuff got picked up by Clinton on a national level. But talk about that era of the New Deal, Roosevelt and the nationalization of the ideas of Robert La Follette.
DK: Absolutely, and that’s a good point. At one stage it was a progressive laboratory for the country and then it became a conservative one. But yes, the whole idea of social insurance in a way came out of the Wisconsin idea. The Social Security Act was drafted by Wisconsinites loyal to this idea — Edwin Witte, Wilbur Cohen. Wilbur Cohen went on to draft the Medicare program 30 years later. Unemployment insurance, which had first been instituted in Wisconsin was then nationalized.
That there’s some kind of social insurance to protect the elderly, to protect workers and so on, all of this came from the University of Wisconsin. A lot of it. One of the influences was one of the early Chancellors, John Bascom, huge influence on Robert La Follette. And another one — and I want to just read this epigraph of the book because I think it captures his spirit — was the Chief Justice of the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the 1870s, a man named Edward G. Ryan. La Follette actually heard this speech before he had enrolled in Wisconsin. He was going to be a freshman and he happened to be there and one of the key points Ryan made was railing against this corporate influence in the state’s government. And he said “The question will arise and arise in your day, though perhaps not fully in mine, which shall rule, wealth or man? Which shall lead money or intellect? Who shall fill public stations, educated and patriotic freemen or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?” And it’s an amazing quote.
When I found it, I was, it just spoke to our age so clearly and these reforms. And I hope people take from the book that there’s also, a different kind of model could exist. That this progressive history has been lost, a lot of it, and it was really common sense, pragmatic things that endured. Particularly the state’s commitment to open transparent government, which was really overturned in the last eight years.
JS: But also, you know, Wisconsin — and just full disclosure, but Dan and I both are from Wisconsin. He’s from Madison. I’m from Milwaukee. But speaking of Milwaukee, that city had a string of socialist mayors. The last being the great Frank Zeidler who also was a candidate for president. I believe he ran as a socialist, as the Socialist Party candidate —
DK: In the 1970s, yeah.
JS: In the 1970s for president, but you really have, it’s not just a progressive tradition in Wisconsin. You also had very cutting edge thinkers who were looking globally at what happened in the Soviet Union with the Russian Revolution, with the rise of huge industrial capitalism. And on a local level and a state level, you had these two lions basically in Bob La Follette and Frank Zeidler and the Socialist mayors in Milwaukee.
DK: Absolutely and I talk about that tradition. It’s a really important reformist, socialist tradition that was derided by people as sewer socialism, but it left such a lasting public legacy for the city of Milwaukee and for the state. And while they had sometimes a fractious coalition, the La Follette progressives and social state did work together and the socialists endorsed LaFollette for his bid. And I think at the core of it is this idea of the public sector, the belief in the public sector which has been so stripped, both by Republicans and Democrats.
JS: Describe the significance of what Tommy Thompson did when he was governor of the state of Wisconsin. And what I’m getting at — I mentioned it or alluded to it earlier — but Thompson really created a model on the state level on a number of fronts labor, welfare, crime that were adopted by the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton. Explain the significance of Tommy Thompson’s time in power and when it stretched, from when to when.
DK: Right, he was elected, I think in the late 80s and he served four terms. He was tremendously popular. He had a very different style than Scott Walker, but as you say, he was a kind of bridge figure between that earlier era and now a more extreme version. He did certain things that were more in the spirit of the old Wisconsin. For example, he was relatively good on conservation issues, but in terms of education and welfare, he did test Wisconsin as a kind of model for creating private school vouchers, giving money from the public school budget — this was the first time this had happened — to private schools, mainly religious schools in Milwaukee. That was draining the public school budget.
The other thing he did was welfare so-called reform where people were made to work for their welfare benefits and welfare benefits were limited. These policies were then adopted by Bill Clinton. But Tommy Thompson was an ALEC member as well, and he famously said, I think it was in 2002, that you know, I love going to ALEC meetings because I can take these ideas, disguise them a little bit, and then say that they’re mine. That’s a paraphrase. This is how conservative policy gets out there.
And really the big drivers of it that I saw when I was at the two ALEC meetings I went, was not even the corporations but these conservative think tanks like the Goldwater Institute or Betsy DeVos’s, I think it’s called American Federation for Children. All kinds of these think tanks dreaming up Libertarian ideas, literature and so on in a place for people to meet from all over the country to kind of disseminate these ideas, attacking labor, attacking environmental regulations, attacking the idea of a public sphere. Their ideal is the kind of Libertarian society. That is, to some of us, fairly terrifying.
JS: Let’s talk about 2016. Correct me if I’m wrong, Hillary Clinton did not set foot in the state of Wisconsin while campaigning for president 2016.
DK: Not during the general election, no. Once she was the nominee, she did not appear there once.
JS: What happened in Wisconsin? Why did Trump win?
DK: You know, Trump actually did worse than Mitt Romney in 2012. He got 6,000 fewer votes. I think what you had was the absence of Clinton. She had no real message for the working-class voters. There was a lot of Democratic disaffection, both in the African-American community and the working-class community. Some white working-class people switched over to Trump. That’s definitely true.
He also, people forget, he made five big campaign stops in Wisconsin during the general election. At each one of them, he railed against NAFTA and the TPP, and China’s admittance to the WTO. Maybe not each one of them, but often. He also said he was going to defend Social Security and Medicare. So, a lot of his core messaging had a Democratic undercurrent to it. There was also a lot of racial resentment. It was twinned message.
He won Kenosha County which is a very de-industrialized place right on the Illinois border. Whereas Obama had won it by 13 points, he narrowly won it. It used to be the home of the American Motors Corporation now gone. And he promised good jobs and people were desperate for that. Southeastern Wisconsin is a manufacturing powerhouse or was. You know, Milwaukee was called, I think it was “tool maker of the world” or something like that. It was an incredible nexus of those kinds of get out of high school, work in a factory, have a good life for your family, union jobs. Those are gone, a lot of them.
JS: But you would see, I mean, just even culturally the sitcoms that were situated —
DK: Sure, yeah.
JS: Laverne and Shirley.
[Laverne & Shirley theme song]
JS: Happy Days.
[Happy Days theme song]
JS: You got that feel. These were working-class areas.
DK: It’s a blue-collar town with a lot of class consciousness. And plus, you know, gerrymandering, it withers political activity in various places. So, I think you know, in some of these rural communities when there was no chance for their Democratic State Senator or State Assembly-person to win, disaffection grows and you had that. You had a very strict voter ID law that probably did affect some of the turnout especially in black Milwaukee.
JS: Some black districts in Milwaukee had an almost 20 percent decline in voting from 2012 to 2016.
DK: Right, it’s almost like her defeat was overdetermined. You could take any one of those things and they combine. She only lost by 23,000 votes, In Michigan, it was even less. But again, she was not a friend of labor for many decades. She had been on the board of Walmart. It’s a notoriously anti-union company.
And then she also really supported NAFTA and the TPP and I think people on the coast don’t get the salience of free trade in the industrial Midwest. You can talk about automation or other things, but they can point you — this factory moved to Mexico, this factory moved to China. And you have to remember Bernie Sanders did very well in Wisconsin. He won by 13 points and a lot of people saw in his message some echo, especially on the progressive side of that La Follette tradition.
JS: You’ve done this deep dive, historical arc on Wisconsin. What’s next there? And what should people be looking for now that you have an incoming Democratic administration that has essentially been kneecapped by the Republican state lawmakers?
DK: Yes, I think it will be a kind of trench warfare for the next two years. There’ll be a lot of court battles. The thing that you see is people’s morale wavering a bit sometimes. They’ve been the subject to eight years of attacks on long-established, you know traditions. That said, I think it angered, reawakened a lot of outrage in people because they had won the election.
It’s much more complicated than a blue wave or anything like that. These are deep-seated structural changes that the Republicans have attempted and the force that’s opposing them really the most is civil society. Whether they can continue their opposition will remain to be seen.
JS: Dan Kaufman, thank you very much for your work and thanks for joining us on Intercepted.
DK: Thanks, Jeremy. It was really a pleasure.
JS: Dan Kaufman is the author of “The Fall of Wisconsin: Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and The Future Of American Politics.” You can find Dan on Twitter at @dankaufman70. Dan is also a musician and his band has a new album out in honor of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, of course, we’ve discussed on this show, consisted of some 3,000 Americans who went to Europe to fight fascism in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War, long before the U.S. entered World War II. That band is called Barbez with Velina Brown and the album is For Those Who Came After. And it was produced with the support of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, which you can find at alba-valb.org. Here is a track of that record: “Si Me Quieres Escribir.”
[Si Me Quieres Escribir plays.]
That’s “Si Me Quieres Escribir” by Barbez with Velina Brown. It’s off the album “For Those Who Came After” in honor of the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
JS: On September 19, 1998, an employee of a restaurant next door to a Taco Bell called the police department in Adel, Georgia. The unidentified caller said there was a body laying in the Taco Bell parking lot, someone drunk or passed out.
Jordan Smith: It wasn’t a drunk passed out in the middle of the lot. It was Donna Brown. She was lying in the parking lot face up with her arms splayed out to the side. Her head was in a puddle of blood. There was a hole where her right eye used to be and a .44 caliber bullet lodged deep in her brain.
JS: That’s investigative reporter Jordan Smith. She and Liliana Segura are both criminal justice reporters for The Intercept and they have spent the last three years examining a series of grisly murders that rocked the small southern Georgia town of Adel.
And now they have produced an incredible podcast series. It’s called Murderville. Jordan and Liliana uncover what happens when law enforcement locks up their first suspect, leaving another man free to kill. It’s a gripping, deeply reported criminal justice thriller with very high stakes. In fact, it may well be a matter of life or death for a man that Liliana and Jordan believe has been wrongly convicted.
Joining me now to talk about the Murderville podcast are Jordan Smith and Liliana Segura. Welcome both of you to Intercepted.
Jordan Smith: Thank you for having me.
Liliana Segura: It’s great to be here.
JS: The podcast takes place in the small town of Adel, Georgia. How did this story first come under your radar?
LS: Well, it was actually through this attorney, Jessica Cino, who’s one of the characters in the podcast. She was looking for journalists who might help her report out and investigate some of what happened down there. She got in touch with us and we sort of started going back and forth and looking at some of the sort of basic details of the story. And it didn’t take very long to realize that there was a lot going on that was very strange and worth digging into.
JS: Jordan, describe the original crime that is at the center of this story.
J Smith: So, in September of 1998, a woman named Donna Brown who was a night manager at the Taco Bell in Adel, Georgia and have to keep in mind Adel is like about 5,000 people, OK? She is brutally gunned down in the parking lot of the Taco Bell. The cops call in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation because that happens in rural police departments all over the state.
Tim Bulch: I think the chief was there. And of course, our investigator’s not set up to handle a murder. So, they turn all that kind of stuff over to Georgia Bureau of Investigation and they had their crime scene truck there very quickly.
J Smith: They come in and they quickly sort of focus their energies on a kid who’s sort of an out-of-towner a guy named Devonia Inman. And despite any actual evidence linking him to the crime decide he’s their man and sort of, quickly put him in jail and decide they’re going to charge him and seek the death penalty. So, they put him in jail, but the problem is after this and ongoing for the next sort of 18 months, are a series of other really brutal murders, really brutal. And it’s sort of unfathomable that you just have like multiple crazed killers running around in this town. And so, the question then becomes did they get the right man in the first place? And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that no, in fact, they did not.
LS: From the jump, one of the thing that really stands out when it comes to this crime is that you know, in the sort of interim when the local police are immediately responding to this incident, this crime, they don’t do anything, you know. They don’t, they kind of put police tape around and they don’t interview any witnesses. They don’t write any reports kind of, you know, in this kind of crucial initial moment where a lot of important evidence can be found, they just don’t really do anything.
And the whole point is well, why do anything when the GBI is going to take charge? Why document anything? And this is you know, highly unusual especially in cases that we’ve looked at. You know, to not write a police report is hugely consequential and a major, you know, blunder. So, then when GBI does take over, you know, they sort of continue in the same sort of, how would you even describe it?
J Smith: Slipshod.
JS: I mean, let’s talk about I mean, one just astonishing fact that you guys report on here is that in the car of the victim, there was a makeshift like mask that was made out of sweatpants, right? It was a cutout of sweatpants. Did anyone test that for DNA when the initial murder happened in the investigation?
JSmith: No, they didn’t even find the mask. It is literally sitting there on the passenger seat, clear as day in tons of crime scene photos.
JS: And you guys saw it in the crime scene photos?
J Smith: Yes, it’s so obvious. It’s in your face and somehow, they completely missed it. Never collected it at all. In fact, it was the victim’s family after they had released the car back to the family that was like, hey, there’s this mask in the car and brought it in. Jim Hill, the Adel police detective, brought it in and put it into evidence and then they never tested it. Never.
JS: Liliana, when Devonia Inman is convicted, what was the thrust of the case against him? Like what evidence was presented at trial?
LS: Oof, I mean that’s kind of the million-dollar question we keep coming back to because the trial was you know, as we described in the podcast, a total shit show. It’s this parade of highly dubious witnesses. The first of which is kind of the reason that police even look at him in the first place, which is kind of strange, when we spoke to him, highly incoherent, kind of, low-level drug dealer who said that at some point Devonia Inman had pulled a gun on him and essentially threatened him. And even though he was clear with police that he had absolutely no further information related to the Taco Bell murder, he did tell police that Devonia Inman was probably perfectly capable of committing this crime.
And that’s literally where police start and start, you know, looking at Devonia Inman. Then there’s a whole sort of series of other witnesses who recant pretty early on including, you know, the sixteen-year-old employee of the Taco Bell who tells you know, the GBI a number of different sort of changing stories and it kind of goes from there.
JS: And Devonia Inman’s alibi was that he was at his girlfriend’s house. And you guys interview her and she describes how he was actually taking care of her small child and had been there through the night. But then her sister ends up becoming a key witness against Devonia Inman. But basically, it turns out that she was furious with him because she alleges that he had beaten her sister.
Marquetta Thomas: He actually was beating on my sister that night. So, but the fight and argument that probably happened around like between 9:10, 10, 10:30, 11, whatnot.
JS: And essentially, what she says to the investigators is he’s lying. He wasn’t there and that she thinks he’s totally capable of having committed this murder. And then, she herself recanted and says:
MT: I recanted the whole statement in court, under oath. So, I don’t see how that wasn’t, you know, apply to his case or new hearing or whatever. He’s supposed to have or overturn his case or whatever.
LS: She spoke to us at length about this and it’s clear. I mean, she afterward did a significant amount of time herself. Her son is doing a significant, you know, 80-year sentence. So, she’s done a lot of growing up and has all of his guilt. But she’s not the only one who recanted her story on the stand. I mean, that’s really one of the truly most bonkers parts of the trial is that multiple witnesses recanted on the stand. So, the question really is I mean, how on earth did this outcome, you know, come to pass?
JS: And the podcast is called Murderville. Jordan, talk about why it’s called Murderville and the other killings that appear in this story.
J Smith: Lillian and I have covered a lot of wrongful conviction cases. And one of the things that always comes up obviously, is that when you put the wrong person in prison for murder that leaves a killer out on the street. And that’s often something that we just sort of think about, it’s sort of a theoretical thing. It’s like, oh you got the wrong guy so someone was left to kill or potentially kill again, you know. We know they killed once. They’re out there they could do it again.
But here that’s the truth of the matter. Like we can literally see that when you put somebody in prison wrongly for something they didn’t do, a killer is out there and did kill again. And we know that. We know that happened here. I mean, it’s a really grim chapter in this tiny town’s history that really affected the residents there for obvious reasons. And it turns from Adel, the city of daylilies into Murderville, you know, where there’s just sort of people are being brutally murdered. And it’s really important, I think, you can’t under-emphasize how brutal these murders were.
JS: Liliana, talk about Shailesh Patel and his family, but also his murder. Both of you have spent so much time doing this kind of reporting, I mean, you know, over the course of decades. This has been all you guys have basically done journalistically is focus on the criminal justice system and wrongfully convicted people, but some of the secondary characters in it are also interesting. You tell the story of this immigrant family and then this guy gets murdered.
LS: One of the things that’s so haunting about this case, well, there’s the brutality of the murder which is really shocking. There’s the fact that it’s never solved. To this day, it’s never solved. But also, sort of in the scheme of things, what Jordan and I found when we traveled to Adel repeatedly and talked about this case, asked people about it, is that for all this sort of memory and trauma that came with these other murders, very few people relatively speaking remember that killing. They kind of remember, like oh, yeah, there was an Indian guy who died. And it was so —
JS: How was he killed?
LS: Well, there was evidence of a struggle throughout this house. Basically, he had come home from what was the— it was like the early morning hours?
J Smith: No, it was late at night. He closed up the convenience store and then walked home and presumably, met his killer in the house, which was the house of the relative that he was watching the store for. There was a struggle throughout the house. There’s blood everywhere. There [are] multiple stabbings, but the killer took a big TV and smashed it over Mr. Patel’s head. They go in there. There is lots and lots of good evidence. I mean, that sounds grim to say but there’s lots of good evidence that could lead you to find this killer. To this day, we don’t know that anything has ever been done with that evidence. And in fact, the crime scene investigator which we were the ones that told him that and he was quite surprised about that all these years later.
JS: Given that you guys both have spent so many years covering these kinds of stories, what’s the motive on the part of the police or the investigators to not want to look at that evidence? Is it, you know, it, sort of, it seems to me from listening to it that it’s not necessarily that there was some conspiracy that they had it out for this guy. It’s just sort of like well, you know, he’s a black guy. He’s a criminal. Seems like he could do it, could have done it so, it’s the easiest path. But is that really what it boils down to?
LS: I think that’s one thing. I mean, I think that you know, you sort of take a few steps back and what this case has in common with the cases that we always write about, it’s that whether the sort of local police or the statewide court system, there is this resistance or refusal to revisit these cases. Even in the face of like truly damning evidence that the state got it wrong. And that’s a problem, you know, through and through. I mean, structurally, you know, the system is designed to foreclose on the possibility of reopening these cases.
J Smith: I would also say as to why maybe the cops did a crappy job from the start, you know again, it’s not necessarily that like you said, it’s not like it’s a conspiracy right, necessarily. I’m sure there could be, but I think it’s, again, when you back up and look, it’s absolutely par for the course in these kinds of cases. They were sloppy. We know that the GBI agent at the time — not of this is a great excuse — was sort of a rookie. And I mean, there’s a lot of things going on.
They get a story that they really like and then they get tunnel vision and then they get you know, they also have some implicit biases here where they immediately start only investigating black men, like there’s absolutely no reason to think Donna Brown wasn’t killed by a white guy or a white woman. None, there’s no reason to think that it would have been anyone in particular. But right away, you know, you see them honing in on black dudes and then, you know, missing — just sloppiness, just sloppiness. And then they like the sort of story that they’ve built up and then they are resistant to seeing where all the reasons why that story might be wrong and you know, just sort of brush them off.
JS: Liliana, as we wrap up I do, I want people to listen to this in its entirety so, I don’t want to give away the ending so to speak but Devonia Inman gets a new trial.
LS: Um, no.
LS: No, Devonia Inman, I mean, you know, is kind of screwed. I will say, you know, it doesn’t end on —
JS: Isn’t that how these things are supposed to end though?
J Smith: That’d be nice and you know, they’re still —
LS: There is you know, when you listen to the whole thing, I mean, I don’t want to end on too grim a note, but we do say throughout the podcast: Look, you know, this isn’t one of those as Jessica says, you know, people like to think that when it comes to these wrongful conviction stories that there is some mechanism. That the system eventually will get it right. They’ll be a way to fix it. And that’s just not a guarantee at all. And Devonia Inman’s case is a perfect example of that
There is a sort of outstanding legal filing that could lead to something and a bit of new evidence which is very, very important. But if we’ve learned anything in our many years combined of doing this kind of work, you know, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
J Smith: Absolutely and I would say that there is something to be said for public pressure on those things. I mean, there really is because the legal filing that they have has some great new evidence that really should be considered but you have to understand there’s absolutely no, there’s nothing that compels the court to review that evidence. So, I think sometimes it does help to have that kind of public pressure and that would be you know, for Shipley’s people to listen to it and to actually, you know, be outraged, publicly outraged.
JS: No, for sure —
J Smith: Because that often helps.
JS: – And people who listen to it can ultimately become part of justice if they’re motivated to action by this. I mean, we’ve seen it in both of your reporting and you know, other reporters working on these cases. It can make a real tangible difference. You could save someone’s life if you dig deeper into it. I want to just thank both of you for the incredible reporting that you did here. I mean, it’s really astonishingly powerful and even though it’s dealing with, you know, real stakes for real people. It’s gripping. It’s an incredibly well-told piece of criminal justice journalism. So, thank you both for doing it and for being with me today.
J Smith: Thank you for having me.
LS: Thank you.
JS: Jordan Smith and Liliana Segura are investigative reporters for The Intercept and they’re hosts of the new podcast series, Murderville. We are very excited to be able to share the first two episodes of this gripping new series. Both of those episodes are going to appear in your Intercepted podcast feed on Thursday.
If you can’t wait, you can listen to the full Murderville podcast series now exclusively on Stitcher Premium. You can sign up for a 30-day free trial with promo code MURDERVILLE. Starting December 20, the series will be available for free across all podcasting platforms, on Apple, on Google, anywhere you get your podcasts. On The Intercept’s website, you can also read the Murderville investigative series — four long-form articles by Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith. You can follow Jordan on Twitter. She is @chronic_jordan and Liliana is @LilianaSegura.
JS: There are more displaced people around the world right now than ever before. This is the sixth year in a row that record has been broken; 68.5 million people, a little more than the entire population of the United Kingdom.
Rarely does the role that U.S. neoliberal policies have played in stoking this vast international crisis get discussed. Our forever wars continue to push their way further across the Middle East and Africa, emboldened by a White House that continually denies the humanity of the refugees that it’s helping to create.
Today, we’re going to hear from the Canadian hip-hop artist Shad about his own refugee story and his ambitious new album entitled “A Short Story About a War.”
The songs on it are interwoven with the story of an imagined alternate universe — a desert dystopia torn apart by war and ruled by vying factions struggling to exist. Shad’s creation is a useful metaphor for the very real world, on which he speaks truth to power about class warfare, corrupt politics, and migration.
Here is Shad.
Shad Kabango: My name is Shad, Shadrach Kabango. I’m an artist. I’m a performer currently the host of Hip Hop Evolution. That’s a documentary series on Netflix.
[“The Revolution/The Establishment” by Shad plays.]
My family’s from Rwanda originally.
Announcer: The independent Central African Republic of Rwanda, land of endless green hills and forests, land of colorful people, of proud white-horned cattle, of brave hopes and noble aspirations, progress, cooperation, and peace.
SK: My parents both had to leave Rwanda in 1959. There was a conflict. So, they were kids 5 and 10 years old at that time. So, they spent their early years as refugees all over East Africa.
[Clip of a French newscast plays.]
SK: My oldest sister was born in Uganda and I was born in Kenya and then it came to a point where they said, you know what, we don’t want our kids to grow up the way that we did as refugees. So, they applied to live elsewhere. They applied to Canada. They applied to the United States. They applied to Russia. They applied to Australia. And at the time Canada had a policy of welcoming immigrants, and so, they said yeah, we’ll go. London, Ontario, sight unseen. We were some of the first Rwandans in Canada. I can say that pretty safely, like period ever. As little kids, too complicated to understand. It’s even too complicated to understand now, you know, the story of why people are displaced, you know.
[“Fam Jam” by Shad plays.]
SK: “Fam Jam” is a song that kind of reflects on the immigrant experience, you know with a sense of celebration and kind of defiant joy to it. Being a kid and being 11 years old when the genocide happened in Rwanda, and kind of, watching that unfold on TV and just kind of not understanding. And you know, asking my parents and you know, them trying to explain to an 11-year-old, you know, something as complicated as that, something that goes back decades and more.
[“I’ll Never Understand” by Shad plays.]
SK: “I’ll Never Understand” is a song on my first album and that song was entirely constructed around my mom’s poetry. So, my mom, she wrote this amazing poem that I heard her perform at a genocide memorial event.
[“I’ll Never Understand” continues to play.]
SK: So, she had a dream where she was confronting someone who killed some of her family. She lost a lot of immediate family in the genocide and she’s confronting this person and they’re in a chair and she’s kind of screaming at them and wrapping them up in chains. And as she explains in the poem, she was wrapping this person up in chains and in her dizziness, she ended up being bound to that person.
[“I’ll Never Understand” continues to play.]
SK: Then she kind of goes about unraveling and untying the chains from both herself and that person. And so, it becomes this metaphor for forgiveness and how when we don’t forgive, we can become bound to people in ways that are unhealthy and hurtful to us as well as them.
[“I’ll Never Understand” continues to play.]
SK: “Short Story About a War,” it is a concept album. The way I think about it is it’s a story and the story occurred to me — I haven’t had a lot of moments like this — but just a kind of a burst of imagination and this story just kind of appeared in my mind and it was a story of a war.
[“Intro: Sniper” by Shad plays.]
SK: Kind of a simple image that I saw which was like this desert space and this boy wakes up and notices immediately there’s the sounds of people screaming and people running and there’s bullets kind of passing whizzing by and he feels the fear within himself. And then he learns that that is what the world is. The whole world is this desert. The whole world is this war. There’s these different factions that are fighting in it and you just kind of have to survive. So, for example, I saw this sniper.
[“Intro: Sniper” continues to play.]
SK: And the very interesting thing that happened was that immediately I saw the parallels between this world and these characters and our world, in a weird way.
[“The Stone Throwers” by Shad plays.]
SK: I think it just came from living in our world right now, in our cities right now, in our society right now. And just kind of feeling the polarization, feeling the tension, the weight of the economic pressures on people and economic violence. So, it became very clear in my mind, this is a metaphor for powerlessness and it’s a metaphor for the hypocrisy of power.
[“The Stone Throwers” continues to play.]
SK: What I tried to do was kind of like, weave in and out of this fictional world and our reality and even my own reality. So, you know, we’re gone in a blink and that is very connected to the idea of Black Lives Matter. And sometimes it feels like our lives don’t matter and we’re just gone in a blink. Violence is something that at least I defined very broadly and we have a way of hiding it, disguising it, putting a nice suit on it. I think that’s the war is a metaphor for all the different kinds of violence that take place. Trump is just one kind.
[“Peace/War” by Shad plays.]
SK: All this talk about violence and peace, it kind of ends up playing out in our everyday, you know, relationships and work. How are we going to wrestle with this in our everyday lives, you know, our ordinary everyday lives? Not even necessarily in our conversations about politics, but just really in our relationships, in our communities.
[“The Fool Pt. 1” by Shad plays.]
JS: That was the Canadian hip-hop artist Shad. His album “A Short Story About a War” is out now. He spoke to our producer, Jack D’Isidoro.
That does it for this week’s show. And this is also the last episode of 2018. Intercepted is going to return on January 16 with a brand new episode. But remember, tomorrow you will get the first two episodes of Murderville in your Intercepted podcast feed. Make sure to check it out. It is really spectacular journalism.
Also, as the holiday season kicks into gear, we have a few suggestions for you. You could give a gift membership to The Intercept or Intercepted to a friend, a loved one, even a foe. If you are not yet a sustaining member of Intercepted or if you want to give someone the gift of independent journalism, log on to theintercept.com/join. We have sweatshirts, t-shirts, stickers and other great thank you gifts. Also, you could give the gift of hilarious political cartoons, thoughtful comic essays and powerful illustrated journalism in four beautiful print quarterlies with a one-year membership to our sister site, The Nib. You can enter the code GIVECOMICS at checkout for 25% off a gift membership. That’s at thenib.com/gift. That’s thenib.com/gift.
Intercepted is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. We’re distributed by Panoply. Our producer is Jack D’Isidoro and our executive producer is Leital Molad. Laura Flynn is associate producer. Elise Swain is our assistant producer and graphic designer. Rick Kwan mixed the show. Our music, as always, was composed by DJ Spooky. Until next year, I’m Jeremy Scahill.
Correction: December 12, 2018, 1:45 p.m.
In a previous version of this episode, guest Dan Kaufman referred to the Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo. Kaufman misidentified “Buckley” as William F. Buckley, the late conservative commentator, when the name in fact refers to James L. Buckley, a politician, jurist, and William’s older brother. This section of the discussion has been removed.